An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system reacts adversely to an allergen present in food, insect venom, medication, etc. Humans are found to be allergic to a wide range of food items, the most common among them being eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans and shellfish. Certain proteins found in these foods are responsible for the adverse reactions triggered by the immune system, which wrongly identifies them as harmful to the body. In order to protect the body, the immune system produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. The action of these antibodies results in release of certain chemicals, like histamine, which in turn causes allergic symptoms. The nature and severity of allergic reactions may vary from one person to another. It may also happen that the same person exhibits different symptoms at different times.
Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies
Both peanuts and tree nuts, are among those food items that are commonly found to cause allergies, especially in kids. Nut allergy usually denotes tree nut (like almonds and cashews) allergy, but include reactions caused by peanuts (groundnuts) too. This is because of the fact that the proteins in peanuts are similar in structure to the proteins in tree nuts, which are the common types of edible nuts. Even though peanuts come under the category of legumes, and not nuts, allergic reactions to both tree nuts and peanuts are almost the same.
When compared to tree nut allergy, peanut allergy is more prevalent. It has also been observed that a person with tree nut allergy may or may not react to peanuts, and vice versa. Those who are allergic to one type of tree nut may exhibit allergic reactions to other types of nuts. While almonds are considered the safest among tree nuts, reports of allergic reactions to walnuts and cashews are very common. Even though nut allergy can develop at any age, it is a problem which is predominantly found in children. It has been observed that most of the affected people develop this condition before the age of three.
Routes of Exposure
Consumption of nuts is the most common route through which a person is exposed to the allergen. Unintentional digestion is found to be a common cause for allergic reactions to nuts. Apart from ingestion, inhalation may also cause minor adverse reactions in allergic individuals. This may happen if they get exposed to airborne particles released while cooking. Factories (where nuts are handled) may also release such particles while crushing or processing nuts. There is no conclusive evidence to prove that smelling or touching nuts can cause any such symptom. However, such instances may happen rarely.
Nuts are rich in nutrients and have various health benefits, but they may prove harmful for some people. They develop allergic reactions ranging from mild to severe, if they consume nuts or foods with nuts. Such reactions appear soon after ingestion of the nut, or within a time span of two hours. As mentioned above, chemicals like histamines are released in the body of the allergic individual, once he is exposed to the allergen. These chemicals affect the bodily systems, especially the gastrointestinal tract, skin, and the cardiovascular system. While some people react severely, some others show only mild symptoms. Such symptoms may subside within some time, or may worsen and lead to more severe symptoms.
- Itchy and watery eyes
- Skin rash
- Runny nose
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling of lips and tongue
- Tightness in the throat
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Stomach pain and diarrhea
Some people who are allergic to nuts may experience symptoms, like swelling of the lips, tongue, and face. The affected person may develop breathing problem, as the throat swells up, thereby narrowing air passage. Dizziness is another severe nut allergy symptom. These symptoms may lead to a more life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis, wherein the airways get swollen, leading to severe symptoms, which are given below.
- Breathing trouble
- Drop in blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Shock and loss of consciousness
Though nut allergies are not usually linked to death, in some rare cases, it may happen as very sensitive individuals succumb to severe allergic reactions. So severe allergic reactions warrant immediate medical attention.
Cashew Nuts and Peanuts: Allergic reactions caused by cashew nuts and walnuts can be more severe and fatal. Even though reactions like rash and swelling are common in case of cashew nut allergies, severe reactions, like anaphylaxis is also not uncommon. It has been observed that peanut allergy can be more severe, as compared to the symptoms of tree nut allergies. According to health experts, the immune system can identify peanut proteins easily, as compared to the proteins in tree nuts. Even breathing minute particles of peanuts can trigger severe allergic reactions, while the same amount of tree nuts may not cause such reactions.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The medical history of the patient is very much important as far as diagnosis of nut allergy is concerned. It has been observed that the chances of having this type of allergy is high in those with a family history of allergies or allergy-related conditions, like asthma and eczema. Skin prick test and blood test are also done as a part of diagnosis.
As of now, there is no curative treatment for nut allergies. All you can do is to avoid exposure to the nut or nuts that cause allergic reactions. Even food products containing traces of these nuts must be avoided. In case you develop allergic reactions, seek immediate medical attention. This is highly necessary in case of severe reactions. Mild reactions are often treated with medicines, like antihistamines. Adrenaline injection is used for treating severe reactions.
While some people outgrow nut allergies with age, for others, it is a lifelong condition. Hence, it is always better to avoid nuts, peanuts, and food products with nuts as ingredients. The most common tree nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, filberts, hickory nuts, walnuts, macadamias, pistachios, pecans, pine nuts, etc. Apart from that, food items, like cakes, cookies, crackers, ice creams, health bars, soups, sauces, flavored coffees, frozen desserts, chocolates, etc., may also contain nuts. Even coconut and nutmeg (being nuts), may cause allergic reactions in some people. So make it a habit to check the list of ingredients given on food packets, before consumption. Apart from consumption of nuts, the affected people must also avoid any contact with nuts, which may also cause allergic reactions. It may also happen that a person with allergy to a particular type of nut, may develop nut allergy symptoms to a certain group of nuts only. However, it is safer to avoid any nut or nut products, including peanuts. If you experience any nut allergy symptom, contact your doctor immediately.